Latvian translations slow war crime trial
RIGA – The trial of Latvian-Canadian Eduards Podins, currently underway in Vancouver after two weeks of hearings in Latvia last August, is finally nearing an end.
“We expect to have a decision by the end of January,” said Terry Bitner of the War Crimes Section of the Canadian Justice Department.
A decision originally was expected by the end of September.
Podins is accused of working as a police guard at a concentration camp in Valmiera during the Nazi occupation of Latvia and then lying about it to get into Canada.
Canadian law bars anyone who collaborated with the Nazis from immigrating to Canada.
The case has been delayed numerous times as the court has struggled to get English translations of key historical documents written originally in Latvian or German.
If found guilty, Podins, 81, could be stripped of his Canadian citizenship and be deported from the country that has been his home for the past 39 years.
Podins admits he was employed by the Nazis from 1941 to 1943, but insists he merely managed a shop inside the concentration camp and had nothing to do with guarding inmates.
Translations for many documents were only completed after the trial had already begun, leading to frequent courtroom debates between the prosecution and the defense lawyers about the amount of new material being brought in as evidence.
Testimony has often stopped as the lead prosecuting lawyer, George Carruthers, struggled to find the right piece of evidence among the 15 volumes of Latvian, English and German documents that have been submitted to the court.
The defense has also had difficulties with the volume of information that has been submitted.
At one point the trial was postponed for a few days after Podins’ lawyer, Dennis McCrea, complained that he had not yet had the opportunity to read the documents that had been presented to the court.
Adding to the delays was the surprise announcement by the prosecution that a witness long thought to be dead had been found alive in England.
The witness, Rollo Watts, interviewed Podins when he applied for British citizenship in 1954.
After leaving Latvia, Podins first lived in England before moving to Canada in 1959.
Because of Watts’ advanced age and poor health, special arrangements had to be made for him to testify over the phone.
The slow pace of the trial has frustrated the judge presiding over the case.
“There has to be some organization in this case...or [it] will go on to the year 2200,” said Justice William McKeown, according to the Vancouver Sun .
To advance its case against Podins, the prosecution presented three letters written in the 1940s by the chief of the camp to his superiors.
The letters include a list of all camp employees who were entitled to get food ration cards.
Podins’ name is included on this list, followed by a description of his job at the camp -Schutzmann, the German word for policeman.
The prosecution maintains that, as a shop keeper, Podins’ name should have been included on a longer list of the camp’s “economic employees,” people employed as tailors or cabinet makers, who were only entitled to rations for cigarettes.
But during the hearings held in Latvia last August, the court heard an explanation for why Podins was included on lists of people employed as guards at the camp.
A woman who worked as an accountant at the camp, Tamara Kalve, told the court the staff list did not include the category of shopkeeper since there was only one such position.
As a result, Kalve said, Podins was officially classified as a guard even though this was not the job he did at the camp.
The case against Podins has relied heavily on testimony prepared by the former chief historian of the Australian War Crimes Commission, Konrad Kwiet.
Kwiet, who is now a senior scholar at the Holocaust War Museum in Washington D.C., prepared a report for the Canadian Justice Department on the history of the Holocaust in Latvia.
If Podins worked as a guard at the camp, according to this report, he would have done so because he was sympathetic to the Nazis.
“The Germans accepted only those persons for the Schutzmannschaften [police force] they considered politically reliable,” Kwiet notes in his report.
Podins’ defense has argued that everyone in Latvia during the Nazi occupation could have been considered a war collaborator. McCrea has often quoted from The Holocaust in Latvia, a book written by Latvian historian Andrew Ezergailis, that argues all Latvians were forced to choose between police or general labor for the Germans.
Last September, Peteris Vitols, another Canadian-Latvian accused of lying about his Nazi past to gain entry into Canada, was cleared of the charge by a court in Ottawa.
During the trial, Vitols admitted he was a member of the Latvian Waffen SS, the German police force set up in Latvia during the German occupation, but denied he had misled Canadian officials when he applied for citizenship. Vitols also denied he played any role in the atrocities committed against Jews.
The judge in this case ruled it was sufficient that Vitols mentioned, when interviewed by Canadian immigration authorities in 1950, that he was an officer in the Latvian army during the German occupation.
The decision in the Vitols’ case was the first loss for the Canadian war crimes unit since 1995.
The Baltic Times, 28. 01. 1999
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